USDA chief spotlights food crops at D.C. garden
Six acres of organic vegetables designed to showcase USDA mission
By Cookson Beecher Capital Press
Article from Capital Press
|During the Feb. 12 dedication of “the People’s Garden,” USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack dons a hardhat and mans a jackhammer to help remove 1,250 square feet of pavement. As the onlookers cheered, Vilsack said he was taking the reverse action of paving over farmland. "We're reclaiming this piece of earth," he said. - U.S. Department of Agriculture
USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack is transforming the six-acre site surrounding the department's headquarters in Washington, D.C., into a showcase of good farming and conservation practices.
While Vilsack's original plans called for a 612-square-foot organic vegetable garden, those plans were soon expanded to encompass 1,300 square feet. In addition to the garden, the site also has ornamental flower gardens and mini-wetlands designed to reduce pollution and surface water runoff. Dan Newhouse, director of Washington state's Agriculture Department, recently traveled to the nation's capital on a trade trip. He said initiatives like the new gardens at the White House and USDA headquarters send "a great message."
"People continue to be more and more interested in where their food comes from," he said. "A garden is a window into the lives of the men and women who farm for a living."
For Vilsack, these landscaping changes make more sense for an agency dedicated to agriculture than the site's original landscaping with its grass, flower borders and memorials.
During the Feb. 12 dedication of "the People's Garden," Vilsack, 58, broke ground with a tool far more powerful than the customary shovel. Donning a hard hat and manning a jackhammer, he started removing what he referred to as 1,250 square feet of "unnecessary paved surface" that will be planted in grass.
"You've heard of paving over farmland," he said as onlookers cheered. "We're taking a reverse action today. We're reclaiming this piece of earth."
"It's like a breath of fresh air," said Peggy Miars, executive director of California Certified Organic Farmers. "I've never heard the words 'organic' or 'sustainability' used as much by D.C. bureaucrats as in the past few months."
As part of this gardening initiative, Vilsack is urging other USDA centers to follow suit and establish community gardens designed to promote sustainability.
As enthusiastic as some USDA employees might be about the idea, those contacted by Capital Press admitted that they've been so busy racing to catch up with new Farm Bill programs that they've had little time to even think about it.
Paul Lehman, public affairs officer in Farm Service Agency's California office, said there are no gardens in the works in California so far.
"Ours would be one of the more likely offices to have a garden," he said.
"We're eager to do this, but probably the best time will be when the new state director is appointed. It would be a great kickoff activity for a state director."
In Idaho, Alexis Collins, public affairs specialist for Natural Resources Conservation Service in Boise, said Vilsack's memo to USDA employees about the initiative to plant gardens at USDA sites piqued her interest, especially since she likes to garden.
She described the landscaping at the NRCS office building where she works, which is in a business park, as "standard office planting."
She'd like to plant native species that are good pollinators, use trees to shade windows from the sun, put planter boxes on the west side of the building and set up irrigation systems that would require less water.
"I see it as a way to demonstrate what can be done with office landscaping," she said. "We need to be more conscious of our landscaping decisions. We could be a good model for that."
Staff writer Cookson Beecher is based in Sedro-Woolley, Wash. E-mail: [email protected].